I first saw the film, The Exorcist, in high school. I was fifteen, at a friend’s house, and I thought the film was gross and a little silly. I did catch a bad case of le crush on Jason Miller, who played Father Karras. My friends said I was a freak and that he was old and ugly.
I rewatched the entire film in college, probably drunk. I don’t remember being impressed, but I still thought Jason Miller was hot. My college friends were a bit more understanding.
Rumors that the film is being remade, possibly as a ten-episode miniseries come and go. My favorite article about it is a hilarious preemptive review of what many fans fear the remake would be, by Evan Saathoff:
I never cared whether the remake happened nor what anyone would do with it. Then I read the book.
The Exorcist bumped my beloved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to second place on my list of favorite novels. I’ve read it twice now, and I still love the book, in spite of one humdinger of a line describing Father Karras looking at Chris MacNeil: “The priest probed her eyes.”
Nobody’s perfect. But you can read my review about why I love the book so much here:
Fans of the film list it at the top of their untouchable lists when it comes to remakes. So after I fell in love with the novel, I decided to rewatch the film with an editor’s eye and a non-alcoholic drink, asking questions: what would a modern remake look like? What would I change, if it were up to me? What would I mimic? Who would I cast?
What fun! So here we go.
Something I would certainly change would be to spend more time in Iraq with Father Merrin. In spite of some wondrous cinematography, those scenes feel episodic and confusing, even if you have read the book and know what he’s going through. I’d fight to keep the stunning scene with the sunset behind the Pazuzu statue and the cut to the mad dogs fighting, then back to Father Merrin facing the statue, each on their little cliffs with the sun setting between them. It’s a lovely yet ominous prelude to the coming showdown between these two fascinating characters.
Some of the music in the film is distracting, but the creepy iconic theme would remain, if I ran the remake.
Other things it would be a shame to lose:
The old boxing pics of Father Damien Karras, framed on his mother’s table. If you set the film in the present, this might be too hard to keep.
Burke Dennings, the foul-mouthed director and the butler, Karl Engstrom, fighting, mirroring the mad dogs.
The desecrations in the church, which are far ickier and offensive in the film. In the book, they’re only vaguely described at a party.
The doctor telling Chris her daughter’s problem is in her head: “A lesion…in the temporal lobe.” I heard, “Legion.”
The hypnosis scene where Regan looks like hell but sounds so sweet, saying someone is inside her sometimes. She’s distant and not herself. In the book, her head clears briefly, which lessens the tension.
Lt. Kinderman telling Damien he looks like John Garfield in Body and Soul. It’s a perfect description, but probably impossible to keep, because someone else will have to play Father Karras. (Rest in peace, Jason Miller.) In the book, the lieutenant says he looks like Brando.
The very disturbing bed bouncing scene. In the book, it’s anticlimactically and confusingly described as “violent quivering.”
The possession and exorcism scenes—please, no CG.
Damien’s quiet voice, especially when speaking with Chris. I loved the subtle attraction between them that never gets resolved. On their first meeting, he lights her cigarette for her in his own mouth, because her hands are shaking so badly. After Regan vomits on him, she washes and irons his clothes. In the book, she takes his sweater off him, pulls it up to chest level and pauses while he questions her, then she tells him to lift his arms as if he were a child. These scenes, both in the book and the film, are subtly, beautifully intimate.
Chris’s out of the blue, off-topic question—“And how do you go about getting an exorcism?” This is perfectly derived from the book. Father Damien tells her, “Well, the first, thing—I’d have to get them into a time machine and get them back to the sixteenth century.”
That shot. Where Merrin arrives on a misty night and stands beneath the lamp post. I would replicate it as exactly as I could, an homage.
The shock. The profanity the demon uses must stay, as well as scenes like the crucifix rape. In the book, it goes on too long, is more detailed, and could go overboard. These scenes were done well in the film.
Damien’s hesitation during the exorcism as the bed levitates, and Father Merrin says, “The response, please, Damien.” And again when Regan’s head turns completely around. Father Merrin says, “Damien!” Damien mutters, “Amen.” These are also pulled intact from the book.
The book’s exorcism scenes include too many distractions, people talking to each other and coming and going. We lose the focus on Merrin and the demon. It’s cut well in the film, but in the book, it lasts for days, and Father Merrin talks to Damien in the intermissions about his childhood and a pet duck named Clancy. Some genius might be able to make this work. I’m not sure I could.
In the book, the demon rages at Father Merrin’s death. It’s better in the film, the demon wearing an almost sad expression as Damien comes in, and then it laughs.
Damien’s death scene, when Father Dyer rushes from across the street and holds his hand, his voice breaking as he asks Damien if he wants to make his confession, and Damien squeezes his hand, squeezes it again after each question during the pronouncement of his last rites. His friend absolves him, crying.
The shot from the top of the stairs, after Damien is dead. Sirens wail and lights flash. Then we cut to the stairs in daylight. There’s no blood, and we hear the sounds of children playing.
The original film has some problems I would address in my remake:
The noises Chris hears in the attic and thinks are rats sound like a small lion, but in the book, it’s only faint scratching and rapping, like big thumping rat tails. It is impossible to believe that you could hear that roaring sound in your attic and think it was rats.
Some weird cuts and too-brief scenes, possibly a symptom of the directing style at the time, are annoying.
Chris turns a wasted Dennings out into the cold alone, telling him a car is waiting at the curb, turning her otherwise sympathetic character callous. In the book, the assistant director and Sharon escort Dennings home.
Regan, in a trance, wanders downstairs in her nightgown during a party and tells the astronaut who’s scheduled for a moon orbit, “You’re gonna die up there.” In the film, it’s not clear who she’s talking to, which makes the line sound vague and nonsensical.
Damien’s dream scene where we can hear him snoring and moaning is funny and does not have the sad effect it’s meant to.
Detective Kinderman finds the Pazuzu head figurine at the bottom of the stairs after Dennings tumbles down them to his death—how did it get there? What is this supposed to mean?
Merrin leaves Iraq saying he has something to do. We think it’s terribly important. Later, we find he’s in Woodstock, working on a book. We almost think he’s fled from his duty. Later, a messenger brings Merrin a note as he’s walking through the woods, and that’s it. In the book, we get one of my favorite scenes that I’m not sure how to translate to film. The book tells us he’s taking in all of nature, which he loves, and that:
“He knew what (the note) said. He had read it in the dust of the temples of Nineveh. He was ready.
“He continued his farewells.”
And so we know Merrin returned to say goodbye to his home and await the demon’s call.
I’d add the short standoff scene between Pazuzu and Merrin after Merrin first arrives at the MacNeil house, only told secondhand in the book, where Pazuzu says, “This time, you’re going to lose.”
The book contains so many details and subplots that could be explored in a longer forum, such as the absent father, Howard.
Karl and Willie Engstrom are rounded, intriguing characters in the book, especially Karl, who is described as “a talking, breathing, untranslated hieroglyph.” In a longer piece, you could add in Kinderman’s investigation of Karl as a suspect in Dennings’s murder, and you could include the subplot about Karl’s daughter, the drug addict, whom Willie believes is dead.
The book shows a very different encounter between Damien and the derelict in the train station. The film only shows Damien ignoring a man who asks him to “Help an old altar boy, Faddah.” And the demon repeats this line during the exorcism. But the book has Damien only imagining the derelict saying this as he approaches, clothes smeared with vomit. And Damien gives him money. We see him struggling to care about the man in spite of his revulsion. It complicates his character nicely.
Mrs. Perrin, the psychic, is absent from the film. She suspects something is amiss with Regan and gives Chris a book about witchcraft and possession, which disappears from a table and then is shelved, but no one seems to know who shelved it. Then Winnie admits to finding it under Regan’s bed after Dennings is thrown from Regan’s bedroom window. It opens the argument for the entire possession having been a case of auto-suggestion.
Damien’s first interview with Regan is much longer in the book and includes the demon giving him glimpses of Regan, Burke Dennings, and various demonic personalities, stating, “We are a multitude.”
The heated discussions in the book between Damien and Chris, where they’re sharing cigarettes like a married couple, would be interesting to see.
The book chronicles a much more gradual, tense, and intriguing slide from Regan’s “illness” to her possession.
A long piece could cover more of the developing friendship between Damien and Lt. Kinderman, and the deep friendship between Damien and Father Joe Dyer, which would give the film’s ending more emotional impact.
Who would I cast?
Chris MacNeil—Cate Blanchett. Well, she just rocks. She might not accept the offer, though. We’ll just pretend everyone is dying to be in this film.
Father Damien Karras—The actor I currently have the hots for would not be right for the part. Do you suppose we could get Leonardo DiCaprio?
Father Merrin—Daniel Day Lewis. In reality, he’s not quite old enough, but he could easily play an older man.
Lt. Kinderman—Ralph Fiennes. I can see him going all Columbo on everyone.
Sharon—Julia Styles, who I think would complement Cate Blanchett well.
Burke Dennings—Brent Spiner. I can’t wait to hear him say the word, cunting.
Regan—An unknown. In the book, she’s described as a shy, diffident redhead with pigtails and braces.
Joe Dyer—Don Cheadle. He’d pull off the dry humor well. He’s white in the book, but everyone in the book is.
Maybe, with ten episodes to play with, a writer could find a way to show some of the beautiful, quiet mini-scenes that make the book unforgettable. Like Damien watching Kinderman walk away after Kinderman confides that he thinks Regan killed Dennings and gently begs Damien, who looks like death, to get some rest. Kinderman doesn’t know Damien has been going through this horrendous exorcism for days. He only knows that Regan is suffering from a mental illness, and after talking with Damien, he has decided to leave the matter to a higher power for now:
“Karras watched him as he listed down the street, watched with fondness and with wonder at the heart’s labyrinthe turnings and improbable redemptions.”
I don’t know. Maybe if Spielberg directed these ten episodes and handled them as he did Empire of the Sun, we’d have something. I know the diehard Exorcist film fans would choke. But the book is so much more than a two hour film allows us to see. Perhaps ten hours would give us a visual experience that frightens us, shocks us, keeps us up at night, and yet lodges in our hearts the same feelings the book gave me.
I’d love to see that. I really would.